I am not a fast reader. So the fact that I finished all five books in David Downing's John Russell series in just over three weeks means that a) Zoo Station (book one) hooked me on the first page b) I made more time to read fiction that at any point in the past five years of get up-research-write-parent-go to bed-repeat c) Downing is a master of plot, characterisation and pace.
In book five, Lehrter Station, we find Russell, the half British, half American journalist who risked everything to stay in Hitler's Berlin and only fled when his luck finally ran out and Gestapo closed in, returning to find the city and the life he knew before World War II in rubble. Though his son, Paul, has survived the war and is now living in London (along with a Jewish orphan Russell's partner, Effi, took in during the war, Russell's sister-in-law and her son) many of his friends are gone, as is the city's moral fabric. The Nazi regime is no more and British and American administrators, the Red Army and NKVD, and criminal bosses are competing to fill the void.
As with each book in this series, Berlin's train stations are, as the titles suggest, indicative of the world their passengers inhabit. Here's a fine passage that describes what Russell sees on one rail journey:
"The next train was tightly packed, its passengers almost bursting out through the opening doors. Shoving his way on board, Russell found himself standing with his face almost pressed to the glass and forced to confront Berlin's ruin. The gouged and pitted flak towers were still there, and beyond them the deforested Tiergarten, a sea of stumps in which small islands of cultivation were now sprouting. The air on the train offered stark proof of the continuing soap shortage."
Russell himself is no less conflicted than the city he has called home for the best part of twenty years. Part of him longs to be back in London with his son, while another is determined to make a go of it in Berlin with Effi alongside him. And now, in late 1945, he doesn't really have a choice but to stay - Russian intelligence has called in the payback for getting him and his family out of the city as the Third Reich crumbled around them.
Click here to keep reading at the Huffington Post